Should I Soak Wood Chips Before Setting Up My Grill for Smoking?

Last Updated on April 13, 2021
Doug Stephen

A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.  

Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research,
he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.

how long to soak wood chips

Whether or not to soak wood chips before smoking is one of the most contentious topics in the culinary world. Some grillers argue that soaking wood before smoking is not necessary while others claim you must soak your chips and chunks first for a considerable amount of time to deliver optimum results.

In this post, we separate the facts from fiction by highlighting when you should and when you should not soak wood chips before smoking. We also discuss how long you should soak wood chips and chunks before grilling.

1. Why Do You Need Wood Chips When Grilling?

flat iron steak

If you are an avid griller, then you probably know that grilling and smoking go hand in hand. After all, a BBQ feast is never complete without a dish of grilled delicacies that have a touch of deep, smoky flavor. You don't need to use alternatives like liquid smoke when you can prepare your meal the original way it should be prepared. To attain this smoky flavor, you need to add wood chips to your grill or smoker.

Long before modern grills came into existence, our ancestors used to cook over open fires using firewood. The smoke from the firewood gave their meals a distinct flavor. 

Regrettably, we seemed to lose our ways of cooking smoky-flavored meals when we started using gas and charcoal grills. But with the emergence of smoking wood chips, you can now enjoy the pleasant complexities of smoky-flavored foods.

2. Do You Need to Soak Wood Chips for Smoking Food?

woodchips

The question of whether or not to soak your wood chips is quite debatable. In any case, nearly all recipe guides and cookbooks say that you should soak your chips. The truth, however, is that you don’t necessarily need to soak your wood chips for smoking. 

When you soak the chips until they are dripping wet, it will be hard to reach your target temperature. Besides, the wet wood chips will release steam instead of smoke, and this means you have to wait until the chips are dry for them to start emitting smoke. 

The main reason why people soak wood chips is to prevent them from burning quickly when exposed to heat. Soaking tends to smolder the wood chips, thus preventing them from catching fire quickly. 

You should also soak your chips if you want to add a different flavor besides the smoke. You can soak your wood chips in liquids other than water such as whiskey, beer, juice, or wine. Once the liquid evaporates, the chips will char and burn to give your food a unique smoky aroma without leaving a burnt taste.

3. How Long Should I Soak Wood Chips?

If you decide to soak your wood chips for smoking, then you need to know how long they should stay in water or any other liquid you are using. The duration of soaking depends on the type and density of the wood. It also depends on how long you want to smoke your food.

The best woods for smoking are fruitwoods and hardwoods such as oak, mesquite, and hickory. These woods require a longer period of soaking for the liquid to penetrate. Therefore, soaking hardwood chips overnight is more appropriate. 

If you are using softwood chips, then soaking them in cold water or other recommended liquids for at least 30 minutes is appropriate. This will help prevent them from catching fire quickly and instead smolder them and produce a lasting smoke.

Make sure the type of wood you choose complements the food you are grilling. Woods such as pecan, cherry, and alder are ideal for foods like fish and chicken while whiskey and oak are great for denser foods like beef and pork shoulders. You may also combine different woods to create a robust smoky flavor.

4. Quick Tips on How to Use Wood Chips for Smoking

Using wood chips for smoking works great if you have a smoker box. You can use a smoker box with your charcoal grill or gas grill. 

If you don’t have one, you can create a smoker using aluminum foil. Simply, wrap your wood chips in aluminum foil to create a pouch. Place the pouch on a pan and poke holes in the aluminum foil to allow smoke to escape. When you are ready to grill, place the pouch on the grates of the grill to begin smoking.

Whether you are using a smoker box or an aluminum foil pouch, here are the steps on how to use wood chips for smoking:

  1. Soak your wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes before your grilling session
  2. Drain the chips but don’t rinse them
  3. Place the drained chips in a smoker or wrap them in aluminum foil
  4. Place the smoker box or aluminum bag directly over the burner
  5. Light up the grill, and allow it to preheat for a few minutes
  6. Place your food on the grill once the smoker begins to release smoke
  7. Close the lid of the grill but monitor the temperature to prevent flare-ups

5. Steps on Using Wood Chips with a Gas Grill

Most modern gas grills come equipped with a smoker box. You are only required to add the chips to the box and fire up your grill. If your grill does not have a smoker box, you can buy one separately. Alternatively, you can use an aluminum bag as a smoker box. 

Whatever option you go for, here are the steps to follow to ensure you have a great smoking experience:

  1. Soak your wood chips for at least 30 minutes and drain them (optional)
  2. Place the damp wood chips in the smoker
  3. If  you are using aluminum foil, place it directly over the burner
  4. Fire up the grill
  5. Place your dish on the grill as soon as you notice the smoke from the chips
  6. Close the lid of the grill
  7. Add 2-3 cups of wood chip every 45 minutes until your food is ready

6. Steps on Using Wood Chips with a Charcoal Grill

If you have a charcoal grill, you can use wood chips for smoking your dish without a smoker box or aluminum pouch. Here are the steps:

  1. Soak your wood chips for at least 30 minutes and drain them (optional)
  2. Create one layer of charcoal on your grill
  3. Let the charcoal burn until it turns white
  4. Add your chips on top of the charcoal
  5. Allow the wood chips to burn until they release a thin, smoldering smoke
  6. Add your dish as soon as you notice the smoke from the chips
  7. Close the lid of the grill
  8. Add one or two cups of chips every 45 minutes until your grilled dish is ready

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